More holistic, industry wide approach to containers would be welcomed: AP Moller-Maersk CTO

AP Moller-Maersk has responded to the final investigation report into the fatal fire on board the Maersk Honam on March 6th 2018, which was one of the worst accidents both in the history of the company and the container shipping industry at large.

The investigation was led by the Transport Safety Investigation Bureau (TSIB) of Singapore, where the vessel was registered. Maersk also conducted its own independent investigation.

Palle Laursen, Chief Technical Officer at AP Moller-Maersk, said that “this was one of the most serious incidents in the history of AP Moller-Maersk and we are devastated that five colleagues lost their lives and that five families lost their loved ones. The magnitude and intensity of this fire made it impossible for any crew to successfully contain, making it key that we as an industry take steps to address the root cause to ensure seafarers never find themselves in a similar situation. We hope this investigation will initiate a more holistic, industry wide approach where we address the concerns regarding containerized dangerous goods across the entire supply chain – starting at the manufacturing level and following through until the box has been safely delivered at destination to the customer.”

The Maersk Honam, now Maersk Halifax (IMO 9784271), caught fire while underway in the Arabian Sea towards the Suez Canal. At the time of the incident, the ship was carrying 7,860 containers, (12,416 teus).

Despite firefighting efforts that included releasing the vessels’ CO2 system into the cargo hold, the fire spread uncontrollably for about a week. It eventually covered the entire bow from the superstructure forward.

The vessel was eventually towed to Jebel Ali for salvage, cut up and transported to South Korea, where it was rebuilt and returned to service in August 2019 as the Maersk Halifax.

The TSIB report found that the most likely source of the fire was in a block of 54 containers with IMO Class 9 Dangerous Cargo, which had been stowed inside cargo hold no 3 in the forepart of the vessel. The precise cause of the fire could not be established. Investigators said it was highly likely to originate from the decomposition of dangerous cargo, thus generating intense heat and enabling the fire to rapidly develop out of control.

Maersk has since introduced new guidelines for stowing dangerous goods on it fleet. The TSIB report included nine safety recommendations, including five to Maersk and four to the flag state.

Aslak Ross, Head of Marine Standards at AP Moller-Maersk, said that “we appreciate the thoroughness of the investigation in identifying opportunities to further improve our emergency response towards ship fires. We also appreciate TSIB’s recognition of the preventive measures taken by the AP Moller-Maersk and that TSIB is recognizing the need to review legislation linked with the safe transport of Dangerous Cargo. The main safety recommendations in the report we have already implemented across the fleet over the past two years and we will be studying the report further to understand how to best make use of the recommendations going forward”.


On March 6th 2018 at about 19:45 local time in fine weather the Singapore registered container ship Maersk Honam (MH), en route from Singapore to Suez Canal, encountered a severe fire that started from no. 3 cargo hold when the ship was in the Arabian Sea, about 900nm west of the coast of India.

All 27 crew responded to fight the fire by commencing boundary cooling and subsequent release of CO2 into the cargo hold, but were not successful in extinguishing the fire.

The crew sent out a distress signal and eventually abandoned ship at about 22:15. At about 01:30 the following day another ship, the ALS Ceres1, which had responded to the distress signal, picked up a total of 23 crew from the lifeboat.

Four crew members were reported unaccounted for and declared missing. Search and Rescue (SAR) operations of the surrounding seas were carried out, but they were not found. One of the surviving crew succumbed to the injuries while en route ashore for medical treatment.

After MH was abandoned, continuous firefighting and boundary cooling was carried out by several assisting ships for about five days, due to smouldering inside the cargo holds forward of the accommodation.

On March 10th 2018 a salvage team boarded MH for firefighting and SAR operations. The remains of three of the four missing crew were recovered on March 11th.

Due to the severe fire occurrence that affected the accommodation space, no.1, 2 and 3 cargo holds, MH was unfit to proceed on voyage, and the Company arranged for the ship to be towed to the UAE as the port of refuge after the smouldering of the cargo hold had subsided.

The TSIB classified the occurrence as a very serious marine casualty.

The ALS Ceres established communication with Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) Mumbai for firefighting and SAR operations.

The ships involved in firefighting and boundary cooling were Indian Coast Guard ship(s) and six Company’s engaged crafts and about 32 personnel were involved in firefighting and boundary cooling operations.

As most of the evidence was destroyed by fire, the investigation team was not able to conclusively determine the cause of the fire. However, there was evidence that the integrity of SDID in no.3 cargo had been compromised, (chlorine-smell smoke, the irritating and uncomfortable feeling, including breathlessness experienced by the crew at the onset of the event).

The heat generated by spontaneous self-decomposition of the SDID worsened, as it was carried in block stowage.

Apart from looking at the cause of the fire, the investigation also covered the appropriateness of emergency responses of the crew, the emergency response plan and the design of the fire containment and firefighting equipment on board the ship.

Despite the good efforts demonstrated by the crew in taking care of each other and saving lives during the emergency, it was noted that the fire alarm was not raised at the onset of the event. This caused a delay in the closure of the magnetic fire doors of the accommodation, and non-closure of exterior ventilation vents. These had resulted in toxic smoke entering and spreading within the accommodation areas.

The muster list did not clearly identify the roles of everyone on board, which resulted in some of the crew waiting to be given instructions.

The investigation also revealed that the firefighting flow charts under the ship emergency response plan did not ensure that all the ventilator flaps/ dampers on board were closed as one of the primary firefighting actions, regardless of the location of fire.

The investigation team also noted that, due to the intense heat and smoke, all ventilator flaps on the sides of No.3 cargo hold hatch covers had proven to be challenging to close. In addition, the investigation revealed that the secondary hazards of chemical decomposition/ instability of SDID had not been identified in the IMDG Code. This was because SDID was classified under Class 9 in the IMDG Code, instead of the more stringent Class 5.1 (oxidising substances), despite having similar chemical properties as those in Class 5.1.

One of the safety actions taken was the banning of stowage of IMDG containers immediately forward and aft of the accommodation and engine casing for twin-island ships.

2017-built, Singapore-flagged, 153,744 gt Maersk Halifax is owned by Moller Singapore AP Pte of Singapore and managed by Maersk AS of Copenhagen, Denmark. It is entered with Standard Club (European Division) on behalf of AP Moller Singapore Pte Ltd.—fire-on-board-srs-maersk-honam-on-6-march-2018.pdf